In This Review

Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny
Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny
By Witold Szablowski
256 pp, Penguin Books, 2018
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Welcome to the Wild East. First, there are Bulgarian Gypsies with dancing bears. Then there is a Polish village whose inhabitants dress up as Hobbits from The Lord of the Rings, along with Gandalf, played by a woman, and Gollum—in private life a farmer who receives European Union subsidies. There are hundreds of thousands of communist-era bunkers in Albania, some of them now being demolished by men in search of rebar. Meanwhile, a Serbian remembers being “treated” by the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in Belgrade, where the notorious war criminal was in hiding, disguised in a ponytail and beard and pretending to be a faith healer: “At one point he told me that cosmic energy came to him via the hair and beard.” And to cap it all off, a Georgian woman dreams of Joseph Stalin visiting her at night: “He gazes at me, puffs on his pipe, and twirls his moustache. He smiles, and then heads for the door. Then I weep and cry for him to stay.”

Dancing Bears, the latest book by the Polish journalist Witold Szablowski, is never dull. This is Tom Wolfe meets Franz Kafka, or perhaps a Milan Kundera remake of

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  • TIMOTHY GARTON ASH is Professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
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